It’s getting harder and harder not to take music for granted; as a key medium for the commercialization of our collective inner space, music now is at risk of becoming an invasive force rather than a liberating influence. But to remind us just how ridiculous, miraculous, and mysterious the creation of music remains, check out the documentary Rambling Boy, which chronicles the improbable arch of jazz bassist’s Charlie Haden’s amazing life.
When Haden broke onto the musical scene as a jazz bassist in the late 1950s and early ’60s, it was as a musical revolutionary, a guerilla in saxophonist’s Ornette Coleman’s screech-honk atonal acid-jazz ensemble that set the jazz world on its ears. Haden’s playing was primal, yet elusive. He wasn’t all that fast; he wasn’t all that fancy. His technique, in fact, was all wrong. But Haden’s essential sound was deliciously seismic in size and impact. Then as now, it just is.
A sweet, goofy, geek in the front lines of what was then adventurous anarchy, Haden’s musical roots lay in an unlikely blend of American string music: bluegrass, gospel, and hillbilly. The documentary begins and ends with Haden performing this traditional music along with his three daughters and son, just as he learned — beginning at the age of 22 months — singing with his parents’ countrified family ensemble.
The Haden family performed regularly on radio and made the rounds throughout the Midwest. Charlie gravitated to the bass, which his older brother played. By his teens, Haden felt the tug of another distinctly American musical form, jazz, and he made no effort to resist. Haden knew then he wanted to play jazz bass; nothing else would do. Haden recounted how while still a teen, a musician from Stan Kenton’s big band tried to discourage him from such a path. But he was determined.
In Rambling Boy, we follow Haden on a musical journey that’s included fruitful collaborations with guitar virtuoso Pat Metheny, pianist Keith Jarrett, and a stint as founder of Liberation Music Orchestra, which has undergone several incarnations. Somehow, Haden has managed not merely to survive commercially as a musician — a jazz bass player no less — but to thrive creatively over an astonishing span of five decades.
Haden’s success and longevity clearly derive from his passion and his stubborn streak, both of which are given full display in this documentary. But mostly, as this film also shows, there’s magic in the music. And it doesn’t get any more basic than that.